After Babel

I How do you read? In posing this question, I have in mind the Surrealists’ question of 1919: “Why do you write?” But this time around the question is about reading. Weren’t the Surrealists also great readers? In André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, didn’t he turn his readings of Lautréamont, Roussel, Arthur Cravan, Leonora Carrington, and Alfred Jarry into full-fledged literary performances? And what are we to make of Borges, the late-arriving Surrealist, so enamored of the fantastic and of artifice, seeking out the algebra of dreams and the key to cities, and maintaining thirty years later that the only history that counts is not that of literature but that of reading. Books are immobile, he said, compact, closed in on themselves, identical. And the only things that change over time, and thus make history, are the ways we read them. And what are we to think of his concocted “true confessions” in which he asserts that writers must be judged on the basis of the readings they have inspired, the enthusiasm they have generated, and that he, Borges, is no prouder of the books he wrote than of those he read well? So, reading. The practices and purposes of reading. “How do you read?” asks another great reader, Italo Calvino. “Sitting, stretched out, head down, while eating, in a cafe, after getting up in the morning, before going to bed?” Are there places, times, life circumstances, or historical moments that seem more suited to the unpunished vice that Valery Larbaud believed reading to be? Is solitude required? Silence? Do you sometimes read out loud? If so, when? And haven’t we lent too much credence to Augustine’s story of his astonishment at discovering Ambrose reading silently in the garden of the bishop’s palace in Milan and declaring that this

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